Outlets like Politico are overselling this, but for understandable reasons. The thought of a nationally known tea-party hero bloodying the nose of the great GOP hope in 2016 over amnesty is irresistible to political media. It’s momentarily irresistible to tea partiers too, I bet: Grassroots conservatives complain endlessly about Rubio these days due to his Gang of Eight fiasco but he’s gotten off with a wrist slap among prominent conservatives and most right-wing big media, apart from the occasional perfunctory expression of “disappointment.” How many border hawks out there wouldn’t want to see West, a guy respected by the grassroots for speaking truth to various forms of power, take off the gloves with him over immigration in a primary race?
Listen to the clip, though, and you’ll see that he’s all but ruling it out without explicitly ruling out. He makes no “Sherman statement” but there’s nothing here suggesting that he thinks it’s a good idea — it’s a “heavy lift” to knock off a sitting senator, he says, it plays into the media’s hands by handing them a storyline of red-on-red tea-party internecine warfare, etc. In fact, there are two obvious problems with a primary challenge. One: Won’t Rubio be, er, running for a different office in 2016? There’s a chance that he’ll stay out if Jeb Bush makes a bold move into the race, but I think that depends on what happens with immigration reform. If Rubio succeeds in getting something passed, the media will toss bouquets at him and wealthy Republicans will ooh and aah at his ability to “get things done” by getting them lots of cheap new labor. He’ll be tempted to strike while the iron’s hot. If he runs for president, then he might not run concurrently for a new term in the Senate at all. And even if he does, how eager will Florida Republicans be to kneecap a guy who might end up as the party’s nominee for president by backing someone who’s trying to weaken him with a primary challenge in his home state? Imagine how much establishment Super PAC money would flow into Florida to try to destroy West before he makes Rubio sweat. That money will probably be there even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, as a thank you from wealthy GOPers for his efforts on amnesty. Does West want to spend time waging a primary war against those odds?
Two: Could he actually beat Rubio, even if Rubio didn’t have big establishment money on his side in a primary? Harper Polling and PPP teamed up to poll immigration reform in Florida a few days ago and found this:
Florida Republicans overwhelmingly back the proposal: 71-22 percent, with 43 percent saying they “strongly support,” the poll of 500 voters says.
By an even bigger spread of 82-14 percent, Florida Republicans said their senator should support the plan.
Those results are mirrored across the nation and in Republican states, according to the pollsters, who conducted the survey for a bipartisan coalition backing comprehensive immigration reform.
Another recent poll from Quinnipiac was less encouraging for Rubio but still more or less encouraging. This time, Florida voters disapproved on balance of how he’s handling immigration, 33/41, but whether they disapprove of the amnesty parts or disapprove because he’s making noise lately about backing away from the compromise bill because of border security isn’t clear. Either way, his approval rating is still a healthy 51/35, which is actually up slightly from the 48/33 rating he had in March.
West is famously effective as a fundraiser so he’d have the means to chip away at Rubio’s popularity, and of course he’d be on favorable ground in a primary running to Rubio’s right. The X factor, though, is electability. How many righties who are annoyed with Rubio over immigration would look at the fact that West lost a (slightly) Republican-leaning district to a Democrat last year and conclude that they need to hold their noses and vote for Rubio in the primary in the interest of holding the seat? A lot can happen between now and 2016 — if the immigration bill passes and enforcement falls apart, Rubio’s in deep, deep trouble — but I’m thinking West has better uses of his time than to try this. And I think he’s thinking it too.